Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

A perfect heatwave read, Claire Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. Frances Jellico, who seems to be on her deathbed in a care home, recalls for the chaplain, her friend Victor Wylde, the August 20 years ago when she stayed at Lyntons, a neoclassical mansion in Hampshire, to report on the garden architecture for the new American owner, a Mr. Liebermann. Frances was an awkward 39-year-old at that time; having spent 10 years caring for her ill mother up to her recent death, she’d never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship. So when she got to Lyntons and met Peter Robertson, who was to survey the house and its fittings, and his girlfriend Cara Calace, a melodramatic Anglo-Irish woman who tried to pass as Italian, Frances instantly latched on to their attractively hedonistic lifestyle and felt, for the first time, as if she had people who cared about her and genuinely liked her.

I was a relative latecomer to Fuller’s work, but Swimming Lessons turned out to be one of my favorite novels of last year and I quickly caught up on her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. If you’re familiar with her first novel you’ll know she’s a master of the unreliable narrator, and here there are two: Frances herself, but also Cara, who tells Frances about her past in Ireland in long monologues that start to beggar belief. Peter warns Frances that Cara is a fantasist, but Frances wants to accept her new friend’s superstition-laced stories. She’s more than half in love with both Peter and Cara. As the trio have lavish picnics on the house’s grounds and ransack the forgotten on-site museum for furniture for their bedrooms and clothes to play dress-up in, the foreshadowing makes you wonder how long it will be before this dissolute interlude shades into tragedy.

Bitter Orange reminded me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she feels as if she’s in a play), but I’d also recommend it to readers who’ve enjoyed recent work by Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Fuller’s two previous books: it feels a bit less original, and the symbolism of the orange tree and the various animal appearances is rather heavy-handed. But the characters and atmosphere are top-notch. It’s an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps on a few of these hot summer days.

 

Favorite lines:

“It seemed threatening now, the empty rooms and dusty spaces sinister, when so recently I had thought it beautiful. I couldn’t help but believe it was playing tricks on me, trying to send me mad or drive me away.”

“I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”

 

My rating:

 


Bitter Orange is released today, August 2nd, by Fig Tree (Penguin) in the UK. [It will come out on October 9th from Tin House in the USA and House of Anansi in Canada.] My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

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34 thoughts on “Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

    1. Thank you for reading. I’m pleased I could tempt you and your friend. No, I wouldn’t characterize her previous two novels as Gothic; that’s something specific to the abandoned country house setting of this one. However, her first novel has the unreliable narrator, and all three have revelations of secrets, tricks of memory, and different perspectives that make you rethink what you’ve assumed as you’re reading. Fuller is so good — one of the best writers to emerge in the last few years.

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  1. Why can’t I get on with Claire Fuller? I seem to be the only person I know who can barely be persuaded to turn the pages and plough on to the end. I can’t say why. I’ve forgotten everything about her two previous books.

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    1. Have you read any of her books? They really do remind me of Murdoch’s, especially this one — I’d like to ask her if Murdoch is a genuine influence, conscious or not. I’m friendly with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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      1. No, I haven’t, but I’m definitely going to look out for her on that recommendation. Mind you, I have an Alan Hollinghurst on my TBR pile that’s said to be Murdochian … but this is said by you, so I trust that more than a random blurb writer!

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    2. Oh yeah? Which Hollinghurst? I’ve never read him, but have a copy of The Stranger’s Child on the shelf.

      Well, having read a few of the novels in fairly quick succession, I feel like I’m primed to spot Murdochian elements!

      Our Endless Numbered Days might be too dark for you, but I’d certainly recommend this one and Swimming Lessons.

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      1. It’s The Sparsholt Affair – friends meet at University, carry on their friendship etc. You haven’t really got to the IMs that have this, although The Nice and the Good is a loose friendship group and then The Book and the Brotherhood is the classic one.

        I found big parallels between the last book of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time and IM’s The Message to the Planet. I don’t think I read enough new books to find much other Murdochian stuff so always interested. She does pop up in a lot of books herself or in terms of them talking about her books, fiction and non-fict, which is obviously a different thing altogether, but very pleasing.

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  2. I was so tempted by this on NetGalley – I loved Our Endless Numberless Days – but was put off by the factor that you mention, the familiarity of the set-up. One to come back to when I feel more in the mood for it, I think.

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  3. What’s better than an unreliable narrator? Well, two of course. As you’ve said. I’ve only read her first book but found it very engaging; I do want to read both of the newer ones and console myself by saying that they are such page-turners that, when I do snap up copies, they will be enjoyed in short order. For a reading challenge, I have a Fruit or Vegetable category and, surprisingly, there are a lot more oranges than any others it seems (via my own GR list of TBR, perhaps not representative of the wider reading world)! Maybe I will finally get to this one after all.

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    1. I do love a good unreliable narrator. I suppose some might find the device frustrating, though. I think all of Fuller’s books are very quick reads. Swimming Lessons is my favourite, but only by a tiny margin. I like your fruit/vegetable category! I once reviewed a few books with “pomegranate” in the title on here: it was too good a coincidence to pass up!

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      1. Since then I listened to an interview with Fuller on a public radio station in the US (KUCI, in Cali) and was quite intrigued by what she had to say about process. (It’s the “Writers on Writing” podcast, some by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett but there is another cohost as well, if you enjoy podcasts. They are not all fiction writers.)

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    2. I follow her on Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram (gosh, that’s a lot of social media! she must think I’m a stalker) and love seeing what she’s reading and researching.

      Now here’s where I have to admit that I’m a Luddite and have never listened to a podcast. As a sort of old-school substitute, I recently read Writers & Company, the original compilation of Eleanor Wachtel’s CBC radio interviews with authors, and it was superb. So much wisdom in there, from authors beloved and new to me alike.

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  4. I still prefer Swimming Lessons, which I found a compelling read, I think I was expecting something a little different based on all the mentions of ‘darkly atmospheric pageturner’ it was more of a decadent hedonistic summer gone horribly wrong in fact.

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